Why does God allow Christians to struggle? Part 3

“But He said to them, ‘It is I; do not be afraid.’ ” John 6:20

The third reason why God allows us to struggle is to ENCOURAGE US TO RELY ON CHRIST’S POWER (John 6:19-21). “So when they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and drawing near the boat; and they were afraid.” (John 6:19). The disciples battled this raging storm through the long hours of the night. Mark says they were “straining at rowing” (Mark 6:48). By 3 a.m. they had rowed only 3-4 miles with about 2 miles to go. Even though these men were exhausted, they faithfully kept trying to row across the Sea. And when they looked over their shoulders, they were “afraid” or literally they were “terrified” to see a ghostlike form walking on the water toward them. These men were expecting to die, and they thought the angel of death was coming to take them. But this was no ghost. This was Jesus walking across those waves. And He was using those immense waves as pavement for His feet. The sea that had impeded the disciples’ movement, was no obstacle for Christ, and all that they feared brought no fear to Jesus.

Above the raging storm the disciples heard a familiar voice bring a word of comfort. “But He said to them, ‘It is I; do not be afraid.’ ” (John 6:20).When Jesus says, “It is I,”He identifies Himself as “I AM”(cf. Exodus 3:13-14) in the Greet text (egō eimi). The verb (phobeisthe) translated “do not be afraid” is a present imperative and means “Stop being afraid.”What Jesus is saying is, “That which scares the living daylights out of you, this strange form walking across the stormy sea, doing what is absolutely impossible for men to do, that is Me – the Eternal God! And the very waves that are over your heads I already have under My feet. I am in control of these events, therefore there is no need for you to fear. Simply trust Me to take you where you could never take yourself.”

Jesus silences our fears with His Word. And there is tremendous power in the Word of God. “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all the host of them by the breath of His mouth. For He spoke, and it was done; He commanded, and it stood fast.” (Psalm 33:6, 9). The same voice that spoke this universe into existence out of nothing, can also calm our fears in the midst of the storms of life. This same voice can give us the power to overcome problems that we could never overcome in our own strength.

Life is filled with fierce storms. Where do you turn when you just discover your son is a practicing homosexual… your mate is talking separation or divorce… you’ve lost your job and it’s your own fault… your parent is an alcoholic… your spouse is having an affair… you flunk your entrance exam or you messed up the interview… your faith is persecuted? Where are you going to turn when the storms of life batter your soul? The disciples turned to Jesus.

“Then they willingly received Him into the boat.” (John 6:21a). Recognizing His voice, the disciples want to receive Christ aboard their boat. The New King James inaccurately translates the Greek phrase as, “They were willing to receive Him into the boat”(ēthelon oun labein auton eis to ploion).A better translation would be, “They wanted to receive Him into the boat.”

The moment the disciples recognize Jesus, based on His word, they want to receive Him into their boat. Then a second miracle took place. … And immediately the boat was at the land where they were going.” (John 6:21b).  The moment the disciples wanted Jesus in their boat, “immediately the boat was at the land to which they were going. Nothing is said about Jesus stepping onto the boat. Matthew says the wind stopped (Matthew 14:32). There was peace on that lake and in the disciples’ hearts. The boat traveled the two remaining miles in an instant as Christ brought them safely to their destination.

There is a message here for non-Christians. Like the disciples, many people work hard to get to their final destination. They think that getting to heaven is based upon their own efforts and works. Like the religious leaders of Jesus’ day, they are not willing to come to Jesus to have life (cf. John 5:39-40). If they were willing to believe, they would recognize who Jesus was (the Christ or Messiah-God, John 20:31) and then, immediately, they would have been safe in His family forever (John 1:12; 6:37; 11:25-26)! Their destiny would have been assured by none other than Jesus Himself. In the discourse to follow (John 6:22-58), Jesus will not only stress His eternal sufficiency as the Bread of Life, but He will also emphasize the believer’s absolute certainty of reaching a safe eternal destination. Jesus will “raise him up at the last day.” (John 6:40).

There is also a message here for Christians. Some of us may face some very frightening circumstances in our lives in the months ahead. Disease, disappointment, death, an accident, desertion or divorce, loss of religious freedom, or even persecution may take their terrible toll on our lives. We may all find ourselves in a sea of trouble like these disciples. But what Jesus is saying to the disciples (and to us) is, “That which frightens you, that very thing which scares you, is Me. I am coming to you in and through that circumstance, so you don’t need to be afraid. I am in charge of it. I have chosen it for you, therefore you do not need to be afraid. Simply trust Me to do through you what you could never do on your own; and if you do that, you will experience My peace.”

Whatever storm you are facing, are you willing to permit Jesus to come to you in that storm? Are you willing to ask Him, “Lord Jesus, what do You want to say to me in this storm?” His answer may surprise you and it can calm the raging storm inside of you.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, You promise that I will face storms or tribulation in this world (John 16:33). I may face tremendous toil and trouble, heartbreak and heartache, and yet in the midst of it, Lord, You have promised to be there, and You can come through the darkest night and over the most troubled waters into the boat of my life. May the eyes of my faith be fixed upon You, Lord. Instead of trying harder, may I start trusting in You because You are in charge of the storm. Help me to be still so I can hear Your voice say to me, “It is I; Do not be afraid.” You are in control of my past, present, and future. Thank You for calming my fears and replacing my storm-tossed feelings with Your powerful presence. Your voice is enough to calm my storms. You, my Lord and my God, are more than enough. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

When the Lord is my Shepherd I shall not want for Rest

“He makes me to lie down in green pastures.” Psalm 23:2a

Sheep can be rather stupid animals. Often times like sheep, we do not always know when to rest. For example, when a flock of sheep should be resting in preparation for a difficult journey, something will excite them – the growl of a mountain lion, the bark of a dog, or the cry of a child. This will bother the sheep and cause them to run back and forth across the pasture. The wise shepherd knows the sheep have a need to rest so he moves into the midst of the flock, catches a sheep and gently forces it to lie down and feed quietly on the cool, green grass. He makes his sheep “to lie down in green pastures.”

The last couple of weeks I have been awakened in the middle of the night with my thoughts racing from one worry to the next. Can any of you relate to this? We live in a hectic, hurried, and harassed world in which headache medicine has become the national beverage. Indeed, we have difficulty resting. We take a day off and feel guilty.

When our Good Shepherd steps into this situation, He often forces us to rest. Our “green pastures” may be the coronavirus which is causing us to simplify our lifestyles right now. We have more time at home. More time to spend with our Good Shepherd. More time to listen to His voice as we read His Word and talk to Him in prayer. More time to spend with our loved ones.

God not only provides physical rest, but spiritual rest, too. But because of our unbelief, we may not realize we are in green pastures. We may focus on the dirt instead  of the green grass.

An example of someone who recognized by faith that God was making him to lie down in green pastures during a difficult time, was the apostle Peter. King Herod was harassing some from the church (Acts 12:1). He had just “killed James the brother of John with the sword” (Acts 12:2). When Herod saw that this “pleased the Jews,” he arrested Peter and put him in prison with four squads of Roman soldiers to guard him (Acts 12:3-4). So it looked like Peter would be executed next! But instead of worry keeping Peter awake that night, he slept because he knew his Good Shepherd had led him to green pastures to rest (Acts 12:6).

When we trust the Lord as our Shepherd we will have no want for rest. As you read this article, you may have no rest about where you will be after death. Jesus invites you, “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Notice that Jesus did not say, “Come to Me and I will give you more stress…more guilt… more burdens and more worries.”

Many churches or religions can add to our stress rather than relieve it with their legalistic demands. They tell us that we must perform all of these man-made rules and rituals in order to gain peace with God. But Jesus says that when we come to Him just as we are He will give us spiritual rest. The rest Jesus offers here refers to a state of mind that exists when a non-Christian realizes he or she does not have to earn their salvation. This refers to the positional rest of eternal life that is based on trusting in Christ’s finished work on the cross (John 19:30).

After we come to faith in Christ for His gift of everlasting life, we can begin to experience His rest as we yoke together with Him to go His direction at His pace (Matthew 11:29-30). And as we learn to trust our Good Shepherd, we will have no want for rest.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, thank You for knowing what is best for me. Often times, I do not know when to rest. I allow my fears to quicken my pace instead of turning them over to You. Like a Good Shepherd, You move into my situation to make me lie down in green pastures where I can rest in Your tender loving care. Please help me to recognize by faith the green pastures where You want me to rest. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

How can we have more peace during this Christmas season?

“Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy – meditate on these things.” Philippians 4:8

Christmas time can be a less than peaceful experience for many people. Even though we celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace who came to bring peace on earth, our experience is anything but peaceful. How can we have more peace during this Christmas season?

It begins with what we think about. The Bible tells us, “For as he thinks in his heart, so is he” (Proverbs 23:7). Our thoughts determine our feelings. If we think about confusing things, we will feel confused. If we focus on peaceful things, we will experience more peace. For example, if my focus is on nothing but a growing list of gifts and a shrinking bank account, I am going to have more anxiety. If I am preoccupied with a busy schedule trying to find a way to go to all the Christmas parties and programs, I am going to be more distressed. If I give more attention to painful childhood memories during the Christmas season, I am going to have more discouragement at this time. I am not suggesting we ignore our financial difficulties, busy schedules, or painful memories, but that we limit how much time we concentrate on these things.

If we want to have more peace during this time of year, it would behoove us to listen to God’s advice through the apostle Paul to the Christians at Philippi. After talking about overcoming anxiety through prayer (4:6-7), Paul gives a final instruction about what to think about as we  pray (4:8). He writes, “Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy – meditate on these things” (Philippians 4:8).

God is advising us to “meditate” or concentrate on “these things” addressed in this one verse as we pray. Let’s take a look at each individual quality. He says to focus on “whatever things are…”

  • “true” (alēthēs) refers to that which is authentic, valid, or undeniable reality. In an age of “fake news,” this object of our focus is so important to finding peace. Instead of focusing on lies which are probably the primary source of our anxiety and fear, we are to focus on what is true.  
  • noble” (semnos) means that which is honorable, dignified, deeply respected, or majestic. If we are focusing on dishonorable or disrespectful things, we will feel worse about ourselves. This is easy to do when we are bombarded by the media with that which is dishonoring to God.
  • “just” (dikaios) denotes what is correct, righteous, upright, or thinking, feeling, and acting wholly conformed to God’s standards or will. So much of what we hear or see on TV this time of year promotes the opposite of what is “just.” The world exalts that which is wrong as being right. And that which is right as being wrong. If our primary focus is on the world’s values, we will have a guilty conscience which robs us of peace.
  • “pure ” (hagnos) refers to that which is clean, holy, sacred, uncontaminated, undefiled, or sinless to the core. If we are giving attention to that which is impure, we will be plagued with guilt and shame.
  • “lovely” (prosphilēs) denotes what is agreeable, dearly prized, pleasing to God. Literally this compound Greek word means “friendly (philēo) towards (pros).” When we are pondering that which is pleasing to God, our hearts will be filled with His peace.
  • “of good report” (euphēmos) conveys the idea of something admirable, reputable,or things spoken in a kindly spirit with good-will toward others. With there being so much bad news  reported daily today, is it any wonder that people lack peace!?!
  • “virtue” (aretē) refers to the perfections of God, moral goodness or excellence which is displayed to enrich one’s life. Need we see any more?
  • praiseworthy” (epainos) means commendable, deserving of commendation and exaltation.

As you read through this list of virtues, what comes to your mind? Is there anything or anyone who fits all these descriptions? As I read this verse over and over again this morning, I could not stop thinking about the Lord Jesus. Only Jesus fits these descriptions perfectly!

Christ alone is… “true” (John 14:6; 15:1; Rev. 19:11), “noble” or honorable (John 5:23; Phil. 2:9-11), “just” (Matt. 27:19, 24; Luke 23:47; I Pet. 3:18; Rev. 15:3; 19:11), “pure” (John 8:12; 18:38; 2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 4:15; I John 1:5; Rev. 15:4), “lovely” (Matt. 3:17; Mark 1:11; I Tim. 6:14-15a), “of good report” (Matt. 4:24; 9:31; Mark 1:28; Luke 4:37; 5:15; Rev. 4:11-5:14; 7:9-12), a Person of “virtue” or moral excellence (John 1:1, 14-17; Phil. 2:6; Isaiah 9:6), and “praiseworthy” (Rev 4:11-5:14; 7:9-12). If we want to experience God’s peace that surpasses human understanding, we are to “meditate” on the Lord Jesus Christ as we pray. This word “meditate” (logizomai) is where we get our English word “logic” or “logical” from. God wants us to give our left brain (prefrontal cortex) some ammunition to deal with the lies Satan inserts into our right brain (limbic system).

The more we think about the Person of Jesus Christ, the more He will set you free from the lies that rob you of peace this Christmas season. May I suggest you take one of these qualities each day for the next eight days and pray them back to the Lord? Praying these attributes back to the Lord will help to download them into your right brain. The more you focus on these attributes of Jesus, the more your brain will create neurological pathways containing these promoters of God’s peace.

For example, pray to Jesus who is “true.” You might pray, “Dear Lord Jesus, because You are true, I can trust what You say. You are faithful to keep Your promises. When Satan came against You tempting You by perverting the Word of God just a little (Matthew 4:1-11), You responded, “It is written in God’s Word. Here’s the truth.” You always countered falsehood with truth and I now ask You to help me do the same. When Satan tempts me to believe his lies, I pray Your truth Lord Jesus will dismiss his lies and renew my mind to what is true. Every word that You spoke on earth was true. Every action and every thought were true. This is why You could die for the sins of the world because You were the perfect Sacrifice. Thank You for paying the penalty for all of my sins. Please help me focus on what is true about You, myself, and the world in which I live. In Your name. Amen.”

God’s remedy for worry

6 Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; 7 and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:6-7

When we are “anxious” or worried about something, God instructs us to talk to Him about it through “prayer.” He wants us to worry about “nothing” and pray about “everything.” The word “supplication” means to tell Him what you need. Few people ever identify what they need because they are so busy worrying. The word “request” refers to asking God for what you want or desire (Psalm 37:4).

For example, if I am worried about what people think of me, I can talk to the Lord about this and as I do, He may show me that my underlying need is for acceptance. I can then ask the Lord to meet this need for acceptance. He accepts me in Christ no matter what others think of me (Ephesians 1:6). As I meditate on this truth, I can express my desire (“request”) for God’s peace to rule over my heart and mind when I feel alone and insecure.

As I talk to God about my anxiety, needs, and desires, He promises to guard my heart and mind with His peace that surpasses human understanding. The “peace of God” is like a deep calmness in the midst of life’s storms. For example, the water underneath the surface of the ocean remains calm during a storm. The phrase “will guard” pictures an armed soldier walking back and forth in front of the city gate, protecting the occupants inside the city from intruders. God’s peace constantly protects those who choose to talk to Him about their worries, and ask Him for what they need and want.

How can I prepare to get a good night’s sleep?

21b Keep sound wisdom and discretion… 23 then you will walk safely in your way, and your foot will not stumble. 24 When you lie down you will not be afraid; yes, you will lie down and your sleep will be sweet.” Proverbs 3:21b, 23-24

In 2017, Americans spent $69.5 billion in sleep aides (i.e. medicines, gadgets, etc.) and it is estimated that they will spend $101.9 billion in sleep aides by 2023. People want to have peace of mind at night when they go to bed, but it often seems to allude them.

God’s prescription for a good night’s sleep involves keeping “sound wisdom and discretion.” “Wisdom” is doing God’s will and “discretion” is knowing what is God’s will. Basically this refers to thinking and living God’s way. When you do, you will experience safety (“you will walk safely in your way”), stability (“your foot will not stumble”), and security (“when you lie down you will not be afraid”) in your life. When you think and live God’s way, He promises “you will lie down and your sleep will be sweet.”

When we don’t know and do God’s will, we often lack a good night’s sleep because we are nagged by fear and doubt. This can quickly be reversed when we turn to the Lord for His wisdom since He “gives to all liberally and without reproach” (James 1:5).  

Many of us may spend a lot of time on our cell phones or other electronic devices before going to sleep. This can also inhibit your ability to get a good night’s sleep. The blue light emitted by cell phones (or laptops, tablets, etc.) can actually reduce the production of melatonin, the hormone that controls your sleep/wake cycle. Viewing your electronic device can actually stimulate your brain rather than calm it down, especially as you interact with others on social media or read some bad news that stresses you out.

May I make a suggestion? About thirty minutes before going to sleep, lay your cell phone aside and take some deep breaths. Then take about fifteen to twenty minutes to read your Bible, listening to God’s voice of truth to impart His wisdom to you. As you meditate upon His wisdom, He promises that “your sleep will be sweet.”

How do I calm my soul when I am overwhelmed with anxiety?

17Unless the Lord had been my help, my soul would soon have settled in silence. 18 If I say, ‘My foot slips,’ Your mercy, O Lord, will hold me up. 19In the multitude of my anxieties within me, Your comforts delight my soul.” Psalm 94:17-19

The Psalmist seeks the Lord to avenge the righteous on the earth who are being unjustly oppressed by the wicked (94:1-7). Then he scolds the wicked for assuming that God is not aware or capable of judging them for their unjust treatment of the righteous (94:8-11). Even though God does discipline His wayward people, the Psalmist believed the Lord would eventually judge those who oppress the godly (94:12-15). 

After looking every where for “help” to overcome opposition from the wicked, the Pslamist found it only in “the Lord” (94:17a). Had God not intervened for him, he would “have settled in silence” without any hope and died (94:17b). Without the Lord’s “mercy” to “hold” him up, he would have given up  (94:18). “In the multitude of” his “anxieties within” him,  God’s “comforts” brought “delight” to his soul (94:19). 

Where can we turn when anxiety and hopelessness keep us awake at night? Like the Psalmist, we can turn to the Lord Who has the supernatural power to “help” us overcome our anxiety (94:17). Even when we “slip” morally, financially, or socially, the “mercy”of the God of the universe “will hold” us up so we do not give up (94:18). When we are overwhelmed with “anxieties,” the “comforts” of the Lord “delight” or satisfy our souls (94:19). 

What are God’s comforts? Three different sources of comfort come to my mind:

1. The power and presence of the Holy Spirit soothes our soul when we are anxious (94:17; cf. John 14:16-17). His presence and power assures us that God can deliver us from whatever is causing us to worry.

2. The promises of God’s Word give us encouragement and hope (94:18; cf. Romans 15:4). The more we abide in God’s Word, the more we will know the truth of God which can set us free from the lies which produce feelings of hoplessness and anxiety (cf. John 8:31-32). 

3. The protection of God in our past also calms our anxious hearts in the present (94:19; cf. Joshua 4:1-7). Remembering how God has protected us in the past can assure us of His continuing protection in the present.

Some people sit in silence when they are overwhelmed with anxiety and hopelessness. But God wants us to turn to Him so His comforts can satisfy our souls. 

A pastor once said, “Whoever controls your thoughts determines your feelings.” When we give God control of our thoughts, He will determine our feelings. So if God is controlling our thoughts, we will feel the way God wants us to feel. The Bible explains why in Proverbs 23:7, “For as a he thinks in his heart, so is he.” Spend time with God in prayer and listen to His voice of truth as you read the Bible, and your thoughts will begin to line up with His. And as they do, you will begin to feel the way He wants you to feel.  

Peace through Grace

“To all who are in Rome, beloved of God called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Romans 1:7

In his greetings to the Christians (“saints”) in Rome, Paul extended God’s “grace” and “peace” to them as he did in all of his New Testament letters (1:7; cf. I Corinthians 1:3; 2 Corinthians 1:2; Galatians  1:3; Ephesians 1:2; Philippians 1:2; Colossians 1:2; I Thessalonians 1:1; 2 Thessalonians 1:2; I Timothy 1:2; 2 Timothy 1:2; Titus 1:4; Philemon 1:3). This reference to grace and peace summarizes the “gospel” or good news of Jesus Christ in all of Paul’s epistles. 

“Grace” refers to God’s unmerited favor whereby He gives us what we do not deserve. We do not deserve to be “justified” or declared totally righteous before God the moment we believe in Christ (Romans 3:21-4:25), but God’s grace makes this possible through “God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” who died in our place and rose from the dead (Romans 1:7b; cf. 1:3-5). 

God’s “peace” is the condition that results from God’s “grace” to us. Paul writes, “Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (5:1).  We can have peace with God because “when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son” (5:10). Jesus’ death provides the basis of our peace with God. Christ satisfied God’s holy demand to punish sin by taking our punishment when He died in our place on the cross and rose from the dead. All God asks is that we “believe in Him who justifies the ungodly” (Romans 4:5). 

Many people today are trying to find peace with God through their own religious efforts. An example of this in the New Testament is a Roman centurion named Cornelius (cf. Acts 10). He is described as “a devout man and one who feared God with all his household, who gave alms generously to the people and prayed to God always…a just man, one who…has a good reputation among all the nation of the Jews” (Acts 10:2, 22). Cornelius’ piety did not save him. His fear of God and righteous works did not give him “peace” with God (10:35-36). All of his prayers, fasting, and alms giving were expressions of his restlessness to be right with God. The apostle Peter correctly perceives this, so he speaks of Christ “preaching peace” (10:36). After declaring Jesus’ death and resurrection to Cornelius, Peter invites this religious man to “believe” in Christ for the forgiveness of his sins (Acts 10:43). What Cornelius could not find in fearing God, prayers, fasting, and alms giving, he found in the name of Jesus Christ! 

Only the name of Jesus Christ has the power to save and forgive all of our sins. The reason for this is because God the Father was completely and forever satisfied with Jesus’ full payment for our sin (John 19:30; I John 2:2). Those who are trusting in their good works or in Christ plus their good works to get them to heaven, are telling God the Father that Jesus’ death on the cross failed to pay their sin debt in full. However, since God was forever satisfied with His perfect Son’s payment for the sin of the world (Isaiah 53:11; John 19:30; I John 2:2), we must also be satisfied with what satisfies God. God cannot accept anything we do as payment for our sins because He has already accepted His Son’s payment for all of our sins when He died in our place on the cross.

The moment you believe this God forgives all your sins so you can have peace with Him. The Bible says, “Now to him who does not work, but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness” (Romans 4:5). No amount of your good words or works can make you right with God. Only Jesus can do this for you through His grace the moment you believe in Him alone (Romans 3:24-26). The result is “peace with God” (Romans 5:1). Peace through grace is only possible through a relationship with Jesus Christ, not through a religion.

The voice of God in a Thunderstorm

“The voice of the Lord is over the waters; the God of glory thunders… The Lord will give strength to His people; the Lord will bless His people with peace.” Psalm 29:3, 11

As Pat and I flew from Los Angeles to Omaha this last Monday night, the Lord put on quite a display of His power as we flew by several thunderstorms over the state of Utah. These pictures do not adequately display the majesty of these storms, but they do remind me of what King David wrote in Psalm 29. 

David describes God’s power as he watches a thunderstorm begin out at sea and move inland over Lebanon toward the north of Israel (29:3-9). Seven times the phrase “the voice of the Lord” (29:3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 9) is used in this Psalm to refer to the sound of thunder during the storm’s movement inland which set forests on fire through its lightning and shook the earth causing the deer to give birth.  

The same power manifested in a thunderstorm is available to God’s people today to give them His peace (29:11). His voice can calm the storms in our lives as we look to Him in faith (cf. Mark 14:35-39).